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How will the State Department's new travel warnings impact students studying abroad?


Claire Boyd was planning to study abroad in Istanbul, Turkey in the fall of 2016, but before she could, the Ataturk Airport attack occurred in June. 

Boyd, a UNC senior majoring in political science and global studies, wanted to go to Istanbul despite the attack. But about two weeks later, the military attempted to overthrow the government.

Coups have been common in Turkish history – with four coups and one e-coup, which took place over the internet – since 1960, according to Business Insider. However, people thought the 2016 coup was different because only a minority wanted the government overthrown. 

The UNC Study Abroad Office told Boyd she could decide whether or not she wanted to go. 

She planned on directly enrolling in Bogazici University, an English-speaking university in Istanbul, but at that point, she couldn’t do so anymore. Then, she would have had to go through a third-party program, but that was not ideal.

Despite her efforts to try and figure out other enrollment options, about two weeks later, the study abroad office told her she was not allowed to go anymore. 

“I was extremely disappointed,” Boyd said. 

Back in January, under its new travel advisories, the U.S. State Department categorized Turkey as Level 3 (with a Level 4 being the highest), meaning U.S. citizens should reconsider travel. 

Russia has also been placed in this category. The new warnings have prompted colleges and universities to revise their international risk assessment policies, which has brought into question what these institutions do for students who are in areas of conflict while abroad. 

The situation in Russia

In response to the United States' March 26 announcement that it would be closing the Russian Consulate in Seattle (because of its proximity to a navy nuclear arsenal), Russia closed the U.S. Consulate General in St. Petersburg on March 31. 

The Russian Embassy tweeted a poll, asking which U.S. Consulate in Russia should be closed. The St. Petersburg Consulate won the vote. 

Andrew Hunt, global travel risk program specialist at UNC, said the closure of the consulate has not affected student travel at this point. 

He said the closure could affect a student traveler who needed services from a consulate, such as if he or she lost his or her passport, or if the individual got into some kind of legal situation, but it wouldn’t really impact the experience of a typical undergraduate traveler going to St. Petersburg with a specific program. 

According to the State Department, Russia was placed at a Level Three due to terrorism and harassment.  

The north Caucasus, which includes Chechnya and Mount Elbrus, and Crimea are areas in Russia on the State Department’s "do not travel to" list.

The warnings recommend U.S. citizens traveling to Russia to avoid demonstrations, monitor local media for breaking events, stay alert in areas frequented by westerners, have travel documents up to date and easily accessible and adjust their plans, if necessary. 

How will this affect students?

Keegan Hines, a UNC senior majoring in global studies and economics, studied abroad in Kazan, Russia during the fall of 2016 through a UNC-Greensboro program. 

He said he didn’t notice any conflict while he was there and felt safe. There were only two uncomfortable situations in which a couple individuals got rowdy talking about Americans. 

“That’s two people out of thousands of people that I met when I was in Kazan,” Hines said. “I would say the vast majority of the people, when they found out I was American, the reaction would usually be, ‘oh my gosh that’s so cool, can I ask you questions about America,' or ‘wow could you help me practice my English,' or ‘could you teach me some English?’”

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He said if he was in a bar and people heard him speaking English to his friends, they would invite him over and buy him a beer. 

“That happened multiple times while I was there,” Hines said. “So I’d say, in general, the vast majority of the time, it would actually be beneficial to be American, in terms of me making friendships and connections over there.”

He said a lot of the same variables when it comes to making travel dangerous to other countries apply to Russia, and it has a lot to do with if someone understands the language. 

“If you do not have a decent grasp of the language, it’s going to be more dangerous, just as it would going to any other country where you don’t have a grasp of the language, and I think that’s particularly the case for cities that Westerners do not typically travel to, so cities other than St. Petersburg and Moscow,” Hines said. 

Hines, who speaks Russian, is considering working in Russia to teach English in Kazan in the future. He said a warning, like the one from the State Department, would probably not deter him from doing so. 

Hunt said UNC’s risk levels do not necessarily adhere strictly to the State Department’s warnings, and right now, UNC is not prohibiting travel to Russia. 

Although the risk level has been listed as a Level 3, students won’t be traveling to high-risk areas. They will be traveling to St. Petersburg and Moscow, according to Lynn Neddo, the continental Europe programs director for UNC Study Abroad.

Neddo said UNC works with American Councils, a third-party program provider, for its programs in Russia. 

She said the Office’s current policy allows students, who apply to approved programs, to study abroad in Russia. The Office gives students information from the State Department’s travel alert system and UNC Global’s website. It also requires students to register in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, or STEP. 

Oscar Javior Bacilio is a UNC junior, studying biology and considering a minor in Russian culture. He will study abroad in Moscow this summer.

He said he knows the United States doesn’t have the best relationship with Russia and assumes it might not be the safest place for him, as a person of color.

“Our program adviser told us that they really do trust the judgment of this program,” Bacilio said. “They’ve been doing this for like 20 years, and if they think it’s okay for me to go, I’m not going to argue.”

How are decisions made, and what is done for students?

When UNC canceled Boyd's trip to Istanbul, she decided to study abroad in Freiburg, Germany.

She said that she understood what the study abroad office was concerned about, but also had the opportunity to talk with her Turkish friends, who gave her mixed feedback about whether or not it was safe for her to come.

“Seeing how safety unfolded in Istanbul over the course of my semester, it seemed really fine,” Boyd said. “It wouldn’t have been that much of an issue.”

Although UNC does not typically send students to high-conflict areas, circumstances can vary from place to place, and decisions about student travel are made on a case-by-case basis by the Global Risk Response Team, a team of administrators from across campus that works with the Study Abroad Office, examines the circumstances and recommends whatever actions it deems necessary. 

The program usually decides whether or not to cancel a trip. 

Neddo said UNC takes into account the State Department’s travel advisories, and UNC Global has a corresponding travel advisory with the waiver requirements, which has been updated since the new travel warnings. 

She said the Study Abroad Office relies on the Global Risk Response Team, which monitors and responds to risks and emergencies. The Study Abroad Office does not do anything without its approval. 

The Study Abroad Office enrolls students in GeoBlue Insurance, which provides evacuation coverage, enrolls students’ study abroad locations and dates in the UNC Global Travel Registry and encourages students to enroll in STEP. 

Neddo said it is rare to pull students out of certain areas. She can only remember one time in which that happened, and the Study Abroad Office worked with the Global Risk Response Team and the insurance company to evacuate its students. 

“Our chief international officer here at UNC (Ron Strauss) is very alert to what is going on in the world, and therefore, so is our office,” she said. 

Bacilio said he is excited to go to Russia because he has never been outside of the country, or studied abroad, before. 

“Hopefully, I’ll be able to learn more about their culture," he said. "And hopefully they’ll like me."

Hunt said anyone who has questions about student travel can reach out to him, and he will be happy to answer them. His contact information can be found here.